Gender restrictions have proven to be an existential debacle that humanity has had to deal with from time immemorial. It is a widely known fact that men receive preferential treatment in a society where double standards are the order of the day. The origin of this phenomenon has its roots in the inequality that has been present in society; men are the designated heads of their families and political institutions. In so doing, they were able to gain the financial muscle that women could only dream of and thus gender restrictions were born (Wiesner-Hanks 5). A woman, for instance, would be frowned upon and castigated if she had a string of lovers while the same behavior was permissible in the case of a man. Such is the case in Daisy Miller, a novella by Henry James where male characters enjoy more privileges than their female counterparts who are subject to scrutiny by a judgemental society. It is clear that the lives led by the two main characters, Daisy and Winterbourne, differ significantly with gender restrictions primarily to blame for this state of affairs. In this essay, I will explore the gender restrictions that Daisy is up against, how she challenges them and the price she pays for her defiance.
Daisy Miller finds herself in Europe where gender restrictions are alive and well. The author presents two characters, Daisy Miller and Frederick Winterbourne, to depict societal restrictions on sex that are in play during that period. Both characters are young single Americans enjoying life abroad, but Winterbourne enjoys more privileges by virtue of being a male. As a man, he is free to behave as he pleases and leads an independent lifestyle that is quite different from what society expects of Daisy. First, he cautions her to steer clear of male company as it is inappropriate for her to seen alone with a gentleman. Ironically, Winterbourne himself takes her out on a trip (alone) to the Château de Chillon castle for a whole day and even pays the janitor for privacy. Moreover, rumor had it that Winterbourne had an intimate relationship with an older lady and the reason why he would vacation in Vevey.
“…the reason for his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign woman – a person older than himself” (James and Decker 281).
Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello is critical of Daisy for merely being close with their courier. She also thinks that Daisy is a shameless lady or accepting Winterbourne’s invitation to visit Château de Chillon as they had only known each other for half an hour. From this example, it is clear that gender had a role to play in what Daisy could do and what society deemed unacceptable. These restrictions plague her life as she finds it challenging to cope in an environment where people see her as nothing more than a flirtatious lady with loose morals.
From the story, it is apparent that society treats women differently whenever gender comes into play. It is quite evident that Winterbourne was an outgoing individual known for his less than ideal relationships. His previous forays were nothing to be proud of and, in some circles, would even constitute moral vice.
“He had known, here in Europe, two or three women – persons older than Miss Daisy Miller, and provided, for respectability’s sake, with husbands – who were great coquettes – dangerous, terrible women, with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn” (James and Decker 286).
Never once, throughout the story did these insights prevent him from being accepted socially. Daisy is acutely aware of what society expects of her but challenges this status quo and develops a romantic relationship with Giovanelli, an Italian gentleman. Many within her social group scorn and ridicule her for making this choice and for settling for someone with “questionable background.” She is part of a generation of young, idealistic American women who seem to subscribe to ideas that the women’s rights movements espoused and was in search independence (Ridgeway 67). Mrs. Costello, a Mrs. Wlaker, are soon in shock when they learn of her desire to walk “alone,” which meant that she would be in the company of one man and unaccompanied by her chaperone.
It is also critical to note that neither Giovanelli nor Winterbourne is held responsible for leading Daisy astray. She has to bear the burden of blame for any impropriety, real or imagined (Binhammer and Wood 12). For example, when Mrs. Costello learns of her plans to Chateau de Chillon unescorted she refuses to meet her. It is also apparent that Winterbourne was responsible for their presence in the castle but still, chooses to shift blame and to chastise Daisy instead. Furthermore, after challenging societal norms and deciding to walk with Giovanelli and Winterbourne through the Pincio, Mrs. Walker expects her to take full responsibility and finds only her at fault.
“‘That girl must not do this sort of thing. She must not walk here with you two men’” (James and Decker 304),
Daisy is an intelligent young lady whose experiment in independence ends tragically. While out at the Coliseum with Giovanelli, Winterbourne and is angry as she ran the risk of contracting “Roman Fever.” After this encounter she falls ill and sadly dies some days later, paying the ultimate price in her quest to be free to do as she pleased.
We live in a society where gender parity still fails to come full circle. Most societies are patriarchal, with the males given leeway for most actions that they practice while women face its full wrath. Such is the case in Daisy Miller by Henry James, where the protagonist becomes aware of this reality, striving to challenge it and finally ending in her death. James portrays the place of a woman in a rapidly shifting world and the dangers that she may face in societies with ambivalent views, especially those subscribing to old European culture.